For the white-collar crowd, the BlackBerry has evolved into the must-have gizmo for staying in touch. For the ripped T-shirt crowd, it's T-Mobile's Sidekick. Part phone, part e-mail device, it has become a cultural phenomenon in the four years since it launched. Demi Moore used her Sidekick to carry on a digital chat with boyfriend Ashton Kutcher on David Letterman's show. And last year, Paris Hilton famously had her Sidekick hacked, flushing phone numbers of the rich and famous out onto the Web.
T-Mobile's newly released Sidekick 3, made by Sharp (SHCAY), is likely to prolong the product's winning streak. It's about 20% smaller than the previous version and weighs just 6.7 ounces. It has an ample 2.6-inch screen that swivels up neatly to reveal a small QWERTY keypad, one which you type with your thumbs.
Perhaps the nicest innovation of the Sidekick 3 is a tiny trackball just to the right of the screen that you can use to navigate all the Sidekick's features. This replaces a scroll wheel on the Sidekick 2, and it's the easiest way to move through a handheld device I've ever tried. Roll the ball toward you to scroll down a Web page. Push it, and you open applications.
But the true delights of the Sidekick 3 are instant messaging and e-mail. I'm not talking about phone-to-phone text messages -- cryptic shorthand you can decipher only if you were born during the Clinton Administration. I'm referring to real instant messaging, the way millions of folks communicate via PCs. The Sidekick 3 comes loaded with IM software from AOL (TWX), MSN, and Yahoo! (YHOO). Type in your user name and password, and you're chatting away. I set it up during a lunch break and was instantly in touch with pals on MSN's Messenger software. The only challenge was typing fast enough on the small keypad to keep the dialogue moving, something I got better at with practice.
E-mail is a bit trickier. Things went smoothly as long as I was e-mailing from the T-Mobile account that comes with the device. Setting up Sidekick to get mail from a home account supplied by my local Internet provider was more trouble, but eventually I got it going. One drawback: The Sidekick can't grab e-mail from servers protected by firewalls, so it won't work with most business accounts.
The newest model connects to the Web using a semi-fast network known as EDGE, which is a far cry from broadband on a laptop but fast enough for light browsing. The Sidekick's screen is generally adequate for the task, depending on what site you're trying to hit. I had no trouble using Google (GOOG) to find the address of a local restaurant, but my 11-year-old struggled to goof off on a graphics-heavy game site -- defeating the whole point of goofing off.
Another first for the Sidekick: This third iteration includes a digital music player. Sharp has built in a pretty good speaker, so you can share your music with a buddy without having to share your earbuds. True, the Sidekick is no iPod. But at least you won't have any problem finding the song you want to listen to -- the 64-megabyte miniSD card that comes with the phone holds only about 15 of them. I recommend upgrading to a larger card, especially if you plan to take pictures, as these are on the same card.
A big drawback of the Sidekick 3 is that it's a power hog. That's understandable, considering you can use the device to Web surf, instant message, play music, and -- oh, yeah -- make phone calls. T-Mobile says the talk time is now 4 1/2 hours and the standby time is three days, but you'll be hard-pressed to go more than a day without recharging. Once I neglected to recharge the device overnight and was stuck the next day with a useless brick in my pocket.
T-Mobile charges $300 for the device with a two-year contract, $350 with a one-year contract, and $400 on a pay-as-you-go plan. You'll also need to buy a data plan on top of your regular phone service, which runs $30 a month. It ain't pocket change, but whoever said being hip was cheap?
Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm
By Jay Greene